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Communication Students Lift Their Voices in TEDx-Style Talks

Digital Demons: Rising Up Remotely

TEDx-style student speakers
Students created short, inspiring TEDx-style talks during an online spring class with Deborah Siegel-Acevedo. Clockwise from top left are students Clare Ruddy, Joli Daninger, Amber Farooqui and Nicholas Durham. (Composite by Randall Spriggs/DePaul University)

Watching a TEDx talk might make you wonder what you might speak about if given chance to take the stage. At DePaul, there’s a class for that. Deborah Siegel-Acevedo is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Communication and coaches speakers for TEDxDePaulUniversity. She was set to teach undergraduates “YOU, on the TEDx Stage,” when the coronavirus pandemic moved learning online. Siegel-Acevedo quickly pivoted the final project: Instead of giving a pitch to a panel of experts, her students launched short, inspiring talks to an online audience via Facebook Live. The talks — which covered sports, mentorship, homeschooling, and how to address racial disparities — can be viewed online.

“Because it was such an extraordinary time, for all of us, I grew very attached to the students in my course,” says Siegel-Acevedo, an accomplished writer, TEDx speaker and the author of two books.

Her class moved to an asynchronous format, which gave students the chance to engage with video lectures and assignments on their own schedule. Siegel-Acevedo also gave students personalized coaching on content, and guest lecturer Shawna Franks, a graduate of The Theatre School, coached students on performance.

A few of the students in the class shared their experiences with Newsline.

Digging deeper for meaningful experiences

In the midst of uncertainty during social unrest and the pandemic, communication and technology major Clare Ruddy says the class became an oasis.

“Deborah seemed effortlessly calm the entire quarter," she says. "Obviously things have been stressful, so tuning in to Deb’s course felt like, ‘Hey, you’re safe, we’re chill, let’s write some TED talks.’”

When Ruddy signed up, she envisioned writing a talk about “laughter or dreams or something lighthearted.” After all, Ruddy is minoring in comedy filmmaking and wanted to boost her storytelling and public speaking skills. Siegel-Acevedo encouraged her to talk about something much deeper, so Ruddy decided to discuss the unexpected death of her brother.

“Deborah taught me to tackle the heavier subject, though it would have been much easier to ignore. She showed me how sharing my experience can be helpful to people, which really changed my perspective,” Ruddy says. As a result, her talk encouraged viewers living through a tough time to focus on what matters most to them.

“Clare moved with agility through the assignments that led to the talk and approached everything with deep integrity and true bravery,” says Siegel-Acevedo.

“Sometimes I’m more engaged online because I can navigate the course at my own pace,” Ruddy adds.

Connecting and making friends

For Nicholas Durham, a senior majoring in communications, the talk was a chance to say thank you to his fifth grade teacher, who saw his potential when everyone else thought he was a troublemaker. Durham had submitted a talk to TEDxDePaulUniversity, but wasn’t accepted.

"Taking Siegel-Acevedo’s course felt like the universe was working in an interesting way,” he says.

Siegel-Acevedo was impressed with Durham’s work ethic and his ability to stretch and grow as a speaker.

“Nicholas worked very hard on the content, and during our Zoom coaching sessions, he found a way to express himself so authentically, resulting in a stellar talk that moved me to my core,” Siegel-Acevedo says.

After the talks were posted online, Durham emailed it to his fifth grade teacher and discovered she had recently retired and had been moved by his tribute. While it was a challenging quarter, Durham found bright spots.

“There was a lot of mental stress, but every single one of my professors were all behind us,” Durham says. He also found ways to connect with his classmates. “I feel like I made more friends, too. I still made friends through the Zoom calls.”

Focus and ambition

As a student-athlete and burgeoning communications professional, Joli Daninger saw the class as an opportunity to discuss how the achievements of female athletes are often overlooked. Daninger plays on DePaul’s women’s basketball team, and her talk gave listeners ways to help elevate women’s sports.

“We talked about the whole time that we all have a story, and we all have a voice that needs to be heard. For me, this class was awesome. Just being able to do that, and to share my story, was so important,” says Daninger, a recent communication graduate who is now pursuing a master’s degree in marketing in the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business.

“Joli’s proximity to the inequities surrounding women's sports compelled her to use her voice to help initiate change. Her ability to go deep into her subject, getting at it from all angles, impressed me,” Siegel-Acevedo says.

Homeschooling wisdom

Marketing student Amber Farooqui took the class because she dreams of being on the TEDx stage one day. She spoke about the benefits of homeschooling in high school, and soon her talk overlapped with her classmates’ new reality of remote learning.

“Amber hoped her talk would give quarantined listeners a way to consider homeschooling from a different perspective, to allow this season of discomfort to help us all grow,” Siegel-Acevedo says.

Farooqui felt connected with the class and community.

“Deborah was very involved with all of us students, and she put together this amazing virtual event that not only the class was able to watch but the public as well," Farooqui says. "This allowed my experience to be very memorable."

While she’s studying remotely, Farooqui is also expanding as an entrepreneur, offering online fitness and business coaching.

"I was able to take on more clients virtually and, honestly, this time is not all bad," she says. "I think that if people take advantage and look at this time as an opportunity to grow and build, they will be able to succeed."

Originally published in DePaul Newsline.